Tag Archives: women in tech

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Feminist tech demos: menstruation, harassment, an erotic wearable, and more

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

On Friday, I interviewed feminist technologists at a demo showcase in New York City. (Thanks to NYC Media Lab (a higher education-city government-industry partnership) for giving me a press pass to their 2015 annual summit.)

Patchworked Venus

Joelle Fleurantin presented Patchworked Venus, “A wearable exploring how computing has given birth to a new form of sexual intimacy”. See the embedded video below for a demo.

Patchworked Venus: Erotic Haptic Device Preview from Joelle F. on Vimeo.

Ms. Fleurantin, (MPS ’15, NYU ITP), discussed her design with me, explaining that instead of being a phallic accessory like a lot of other erotic devices, Patchworked Venus emphasizes other erogenous zones. Her artist’s statement asks:

How can an erotic device become a tool for body modification: an extension of the user rather than a facsimile of an external, imagined person? And what then becomes of this augmented wearer, specifically when her body is not raceless like those present in dominant representations of the cyborg?

Patchworked Venus explores these questions by casting an intimate experience within the context of dress as performance.

The garment, in contrast to conventional vibrators, is meant to be worn, and uses heat, compression, and touch on the wearer’s back, inner thighs, and nipples. A warm circuit provides heat over the breast, motors like those used for haptic response in mobile phones give the user a sensation of touch on the back and the inner thighs, and an inflatable jacket and hood literally embrace the wearer with a pneumatic actuating system, providing a pleasant feeling of compression and constriction. She “designed and milled breakout boards for use with the Adafruit Flora” (from her “About” page). Ms. Fleurantin also considered using soft robotics and lithography to give the wearer a sensation of breath on the skin, but decided against it since that approach would require a large, loud air compressor.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

Check out her ten-minute thesis presentation for more on the Erotic Haptic Device and Patchworked Venus. In it, Ms. Fleurantin discusses her influences and process, including her upbringing as a black woman, learning from her mother how important self-presentation, grooming, and clothing were. I noted down some names and links from that presentation and from my conversation with her on Friday:

(I had previously known Ms. Fleurantin because of her work on user research for the Mozilla wiki; I’ll be curious to see her next project as well!)


I spoke with Lucy M. Bonner and tried out her immersive harassment simulator “Compliment”. Ms. Bonner (MFA Design and Technology ’16, Parsons the New School for Design) developed “Compliment,” a virtual reality experience using the Oculus Rift, and you can see a demo video on YouTube if you sign in.

From her artist’s statement:

Compliment is an immersive experience of street harassment designed and created for the Oculus Rift. It demonstrates the fact that harassment creates an atmosphere of intimidation and tension for women on a daily basis, that it is not ok, and that it is not a compliment. Compliment conveys the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced in order to raise awareness and effect change.

Ms. Bonner received much more street harassment when she moved from Houston to New York City, and used those catcalls she heard in real life to populate the set of harassing comments that simulated harassers say to the player. She appreciates how virtual reality lets her offer, say, a 6-foot-2-inches man a way to experience the world as a shorter, more vulnerable person. “Many of the harassers in the experience are much larger than the player, which creates part of the sense of danger and intrusion in confrontations.” Also: “Players are unable to respond, as in the real world with concern for safety, and are forced to constantly hear and dodge unwanted attention.”

I mentioned to Ms. Bonner a truism I’ve heard (via Adria Richards or Lukas Blakk, I believe) that men tend to use augmented reality experiences like Google Glass to more powerfully navigate the world, while women tend to use them to document their experience in the world. Ms. Bonner wouldn’t put “Compliment” in that latter category, and not just because VR and augmented reality are different approaches; she considers “Compliment” more outwardly focused, showing other people what her experience is like rather than concentrating on gathering proof of the experience itself. “Compliment” conveys, as she puts it, the “cumulative atmosphere of silencing and objectification”.

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot


I spoke with Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth about their quite different simulator, d.Bot. “Drawing from female experiences in online and offline dating, d.bot is a chatbot that simulates conversing with an unenlightened male.” Ms. Chin and Mr. Collinsworth (MFA in Design & Technology ’16, The New School) used JavaScript, socket.io, and Parse to develop d.Bot, and made it partially to test out a theory about a different approach to artificial intelligence than you often see. Rather than aiming for a predictive response, d.Bot is trying to stimulate a particular response in the human user. You can try it out at http://bit.ly/dBot.

A demo session with d.Bot

A demo session with d.Bot

Ms. Chin said that it’s been nice to be able to use things guys have said to her, and that hearing or seeing new annoying messages, she figures, it’s going into the pot. (This includes a comment a guy said to her during fair setup, just before I arrived.) You can also click the “Feed Me” button to add something a guy has said to you, if you’d like to add more quotes to the database.

Mr. Collinsworth hopes d.Bot will help men experience what women experience, both online and in the physical world; any one guy saying uncreative things doesn’t experience what it’s like to hear those same comments frequently and en masse. In that vein, he suggested that perhaps Tinder could show users an originality score as they type messages to other users, flagging likely boring messages and discouraging users from sending them.

Ms. Chin said that she’s seen other critique of boring or harassing men (street harassers and OKCupid and Tinder users) that’s more in a name-and-shame mode, and that she wonders whether a critique in the form of humor around originality and creativity would be more likely to change the player’s behavior, as opposed to dinging a user and saying “you’re a bad person”. For her and for other d.Bot users, the bot is also a fun way to vent — she said she’s seen women happy to finally have a chance to talk back to these messages in a safe, consequence-free sandbox.

I asked for her thoughts on feminist dating apps like Bumble, and we discussed the possibility that Bumble (in which women can and men cannot initiate conversation) is just moving the problem a little further down the road; instead of screening out men at the stage of initial online conversation, het women might find that they go on more dates with men who don’t interact well.


Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presented “SHVRK”: “Surf the crimson wave with fewer fatalities”. Users can sign up to get text message alerts of their friends’ menstrual cycles. Below is her SHVRK v1.0 demo video.

Ms. Raffaelli (MS Integrated Digital Media ’16, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering) and I spoke a little on Friday, and then she answered my questions on SHVRK, her influences, and her feminism via email:

There are apps for women to track women’s cycles, and there are apps for men to track what they don’t like about women’s cycles. The former often have pastel palettes, cute logos, and an emphasis on fertility and pregnancy. The latter have a handful of angry responses from the feminist community.

As long as bodily fluids and excretions are taboo, periods will be taboo. The app was never meant to change anybody’s views of leftover uterine lining. That said, the divisive nature of the current apps on the market doesn’t offer many people the opportunity to level the playing field. What we need is an app with an interface with universal appeal. We need an app that doesn’t perpetuate traditional stereotypes, but educates and facilitates. We need an app that makes the monthly inconvenience a little more convenient.

I’ve tried apps with features I didn’t need. I don’t need help getting pregnant, I don’t need to share my uterine woes with a community of empathetic blood sisters, and I don’t need cute puppies to guide me through reminders to hydrate. What I do need is an app that alerts my man to the state of my hormones. What about the men who don’t care about the difference between pads and tampons, ovulation versus menstruation, or what PMS really stands for? Well, I don’t blame them­­I’m not sure I would care for the details either if I didn’t go through it monthly.

The first steps were figuring out what would make a man WANT to use the same period app as a woman. My favorite answers were from the “make me a sandwich” types of guys. If this could get you laid, would you use the app? But of course.

Who is this app for? This is for women who like men, men who like women, and women who like women. This is for the monogamous and polyamorous. This is for the people with a sense of humor. This app is for those who say “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.” This is for anybody who has ever been cockblocked by a period.

“…why you made SHVRK (including your dissatisfactions with other services and apps)…”

My shark week isn’t a big deal. In fact, I usually forget about it, and that’s why I started to use the apps. These would give me a heads up, and I realized, you know who else could use these updates? My boyfriend. When the conversation comes up, he tries to either be understanding or a comedian. He cares, but he’ll never really get it. Why not give him just the information he needs without framing it in etiquette and small talk?

My research showed that there were tons of apps for men. They seemed to have exploded between 2008 and 2010, and most of them enraged the feminist community. Could it be possible to make one app that could appeal to those menstruating as well as those not menstruating?

“…what technologies you used to make it…”

The graphite pencil. Illustrator, After Effects, and the rest of the Adobe suite. Started playing around with a bit of this and that for the final product, from PHP to Swift… This is a lot of learning as I go.

“…what some next steps are…”

Step 1: iOS or Android? Step 2: Launch.

“…your feminism and the ways in which the project is feminist…”

Feminism can be a scary word. Every female in this society develops a relationship with it, and that makes it a weighty, frustrating, and complex matter. Feminism is a spectrum. We might avoid it all costs, or we embrace our own definition, or we embody someone else’s interpretation without realizing it. That’s about all I can say about ‘feminism’.

I want to bid farewell to man­bashing and figurative bra­burning. There are too many women in the world with no access to proper hygiene products and women who are cast out of their homes during that time of the month, but there are also too many man­bashers and bra­burners here fighting a fight that’s been fought here. What if we take another approach to understanding the difference between men and women in the little world of people with smartphones and access to clean running water?

In April, Leslee Udwin visited NYU for a special screening of her film ​India’s Daughter. There are two relevant memorable moments from that night. The first was when Leslee Udwin said she set out to answer ‘why men rape’. The second was when I asked if she had found her answer, and she responded that she expected the men she interviewed to be monsters. She expected them to be textbook psychopaths. What she found was that they were just humans like you and me. They were not ‘bad apples’ spoiling the barrel. The barrel was bad.

There are bad apple feminists the same way there are bad apple chauvinists. SHVRK is not about redefining ‘man’ or ‘woman’, but about leveling the playing field between unique individuals like you and me, ​so we don’t have to hear “Are you PMSing? Are you on your period?”

“…​and what or who some of your influences are.​”

Leslee Udwin is pretty amazing, but here I have to officially say Happenstance. Nothing goes up on a pedestal like happenstance. Letting the cards fall as they may is magical and always a little mysterious. Let it lead the way.

And more

I concentrated in this piece on discussing demos from the summit that particularly spoke to me on a feminist level, but I saw women technologists presenting many projects you might find interesting for other reasons. StackedUp uses AI for investigative reporting. NEW YOARK is an augmented reality mobile app that emphasizes the diversity of languages spoken in New York City. Bullet Pointe Lab designs and makes innovative clothes for ballet dancers, such as shorts with heating elements to help warm hips so they can open more fully. I saw multiple more clothing-related apps, natural language processing research, a tool to help you analyze your own social media activity, and a Twitter bot and collaborative storytelling and coding project telling the stories of people incarcerated at the Rikers Island correctional facility. On my way out the door, I spoke to one of the event staffers, a woman who’s working on Haveyouseenthem.org, a project to use the web and stickers on milk cartons to raise awareness of missing Central American and Mexican migrants.

Thanks again to NYC Media Lab and to the innovators who spoke with me.

Libraries’ tech pipeline problem

This is cross-posted on Coral’s blog. There has been some discussion on Metafilter and on Twitter (link goes to a Storify of tweets).

“We’ve got a pipeline problem, so let’s build a better pipeline.” –Bess Sadler, Code4Lib 2014 Conference (the link goes to the video)

I’ve been thinking hard (for two years, judging by the draft date on this post) about how to grow as a programmer, when one is also a librarian. I’m talking not so much about teaching/learning the basics of coding, which is something a lot of people are working really hard on, but more about getting from “OK, I finished yet another Python/Rails/JavaScript/whatever workshop” or “OK, I’ve been through all of Code Academy/edX/whatever”—or from where I am, “OK, I can Do Interesting Things™ with code, but there are huge gaps in my tech knowledge and vocabulary”—to the point where one could get a full-time librarian-coder position.

I should add, right here: I’m no longer trying to get a librarian-coder position*. This post isn’t about me, although it is, of course, from my perspective and informed by my experiences. This post is about a field I love, which is currently shooting itself in the foot, which frustrates me.

Bess is right: libraries need 1) more developers and 2) more diversity among them. Libraries are hamstrung by expensive, insufficient vendor “solutions.” (I’m not hating on the vendors, here; libraries’ problems are complex, and fragmentation and a number of other issues make it difficult for vendors to provide really good solutions.) Libraries and librarians could be so much more effective if we had good software, with interoperable APIs, designed specifically to fill modern libraries’ needs.

Please, don’t get me wrong: I know some libraries are working on this. But they’re too few, and their developers’ demographics do not represent the demographics of libraries at large, let alone our patron bases. I argue that the dearth and the demographic skew will continue and probably worsen, unless we make a radical change to our hiring practices and training options for technical talent.

Building technical skills among librarians

The biggest issue I see is that we offer a fair number of very basic learn-to-code workshops, but we don’t offer a realistic path from there to writing code as a job. To put a finer point on it, we do not offer “junior developer” positions in libraries; we write job ads asking for unicorns, with expert- or near-expert-level skills in at least two areas (I’ve seen ones that wanted strong skills in development, user experience, and devops, for instance).

This is unfortunate, because developing real fluency with any skill, including coding, requires practicing it regularly. In the case of software development, there are things you can really only learn on the job, working with other developers (ask me about Git, sometime); only, nobody seems willing to hire for that. And, yes, I understand that there are lots of single-person teams in libraries—far more than there should be—but many open source software projects can fill in a lot of that group learning and mentoring experience, if a lone developer is allowed to participate in them on work time. (OSS is how I am planning to fill in those skills, myself.)

From what I can tell, if you’re a librarian who wants to learn to code, you generally have two really bad options: 1) learn in your spare time, somehow; or 2) quit libraries and work somewhere else until your skills are built up. I’ve been down both of those roads, and as a result I no longer have “be a [paid] librarian-developer” on my goals list.

Option one: Learn in your spare time

This option is clown shoes. It isn’t sustainable for anybody, really, but it’s especially not sustainable for people in caretaker roles (e.g. single parents), people with certain disabilities (who have less energy and free time to start with), people who need to work more than one job, etc.—that is, people from marginalized groups. Frankly, it’s oppressive, and it’s absolutely a contributing factor to libtech’s largely male, white, middle to upper-middle class, able-bodied demographics—in contrast to the demographics of the field at large (which is also most of those things, but certainly not predominantly male).

“I’ve never bought this ‘do it in your spare time’ stuff. And it turns out that doing it in your spare time is terribly discriminatory, because … a prominent aspect of oppression is that you have more to do in less spare time.” – Valerie Aurora, during her keynote interview for Code4Lib 2014 (the link goes to the video)

“It’s become the norm in many technology shops to expect that people will take care of skills upgrading on their own time. But that’s just not a sustainable model. Even people who adore late night, just-for-fun hacking sessions during the legendary ‘larval phase’ of discovering software development can come to feel differently in a later part of their lives.” – Bess Sadler, same talk as above

I tried to make it work, in my last library job, by taking one day off every other week** to work on my development skills. I did make some headway—a lot, arguably—but one day every two weeks is not enough to build real fluency, just as fiddling around alone did not help me build the skills that a project with a team would have. Not only do most people not have the privilege of dropping to 90% of their work time, but even if you do, that’s not an effective route to learning enough!

And, here, you might think of the coding bootcamps (at more than $10k per) or the (free, but you have to live in NYC) Recurse Center (which sits on my bucket list, unvisited), but, again: most people can’t afford to take three months away from work, like that. And the Recurse Center isn’t so much a school (hence the name change away from “Hacker School”) as it is a place to get away from the pressures of daily life and just code; realistically, you have to be at a certain level to get in. My point, though, is that the people for whom these are realistic options tend to be among the least marginalized in other ways. So, I argue that they are not solutions and not something we should expect people to do.

Option two: go work in tech

If you can’t get the training you need within libraries or in your spare time, it kind of makes sense to go find a job with some tech company, work there for a few years, build up your skills, and then come back. I thought so, anyway. It turns out, this plan was clown shoes, too.

Every woman I’ve talked to who has taken this approach has had a terrible experience. (I also know of a few women who’ve tried this approach and haven’t reported back, at least to me. So my data is incomplete, here. Still, tech’s horror stories are numerous, so go with me here.) I have a theory that library vendors are a safer bet and may be open to hiring newer developers than libraries currently are, but I don’t have enough data (or anecdata) to back it up, so I’m going to talk about tech-tech.

Frankly, if we expect members of any marginalized group to go work in tech in order to build up the skills necessary for a librarian-developer job, we are throwing them to the wolves. In tech, even able-bodied straight cisgender middle class white women are a badly marginalized group, and heaven help you if you’re on any other axis of oppression.

And, sure, yeah. Not all tech. I’ll agree that there are non-terrible jobs for people from marginalized groups in tech, but you have to be skilled enough to get to be that choosy, which people in the scenario we’re discussing are not. I think my story is a pretty good illustration of how even a promising-looking tech job can still turn out horrible. (TLDR: I found a company that could talk about basic inclusivity and diversity in a knowledgeable way and seemed to want to build a healthy culture. It did not have a healthy culture.)

We just can’t outsource that skill-building period to non-library tech. It isn’t right. We stand to lose good people that way.

We need to develop our own techies—I’m talking code, here, because it’s what I know, but most of my argument expands to all of libtech and possibly even to library leadership—or continue offering our patrons sub-par software built within vendor silos and patched together by a small, privileged subset of our field. I don’t have to tell you what that looks like; we live with it, already.

What to do?

I’m going to focus on what you, as an individual organization, or leader within an organization, can do to help; I acknowledge that there are some systemic issues at play, beyond what my relatively small suggestions can reach, and I hope this post gets people talking and thinking about them (and not just to wave their hands and sigh and complain that “there isn’t enough money,” because doomsaying is boring and not helpful).

First of all, when you’re looking at adding to the tech talent in your organization, look within your organization. Is there a cataloger who knows some scripting and might want to learn more? (Ask around! Find out!) What about your web content manager, UX person, etc.? (Offer!) You’ll probably be tempted to look at men, first, because society has programmed us all in evil ways (seriously), so acknowledge that impulse and look harder. The same goes for race and disability and having the MLIS, which is too often a stand-in for socioeconomic class; actively resist those biases (and we all have those biases).

If you need tech talent and can’t grow it from within your organization, sit down and figure out what you really need, on day one, versus what might be nice to have, but could realistically wait. Don’t put a single nice-to-have on your requirements list, and don’t you dare lose sight of what is and isn’t necessary when evaluating candidates.

Recruit in diverse and non-traditional spaces for tech folks — dashing off an email to Code4Lib is not good enough (although, sure, do that too; they’re nice folks). LibTechWomen is an obvious choice, as are the Spectrum Scholars, but you might also look at the cataloging listservs or the UX listservs, just to name two options. Maybe see who tweets about #libtechgender and #critlib (and possibly #lismicroaggressions?), and invite those folks to apply and to share your linted job opening with their networks.

Don’t use whiteboard interviews! They are useless and unnecessarily intimidating! They screen for “confidence,” not technical ability. Pair-programming exercises, with actual taking turns and pairing, are a good alternative. Talking through scenarios is also a good alternative.

Don’t give candidates technology vocabulary tests. Not only is it nearly useless as an evaluation tool (and a little insulting); it actively discriminates against people without formal CS education (or, cough, people with CS minors from more than a decade ago). You want to know that they can approach a problem in an organized manner, not that they can define a term that’s easily Googled.

Do some reading about impostor syndrome, stereotype threat, and responsible tech hiring. Model View Culture’s a good place to start; here is their hiring issue.

(I have a whole slew of comments about hiring, and I’ll make those—and probably repeat the list above—in another post.)

Once you have someone in a position, or (better) you’re growing someone into a position, be sure to set reasonable expectations and deadlines. There will be some training time for any tech person; you want this, because something built with enough forethought and research will be better than something hurriedly duct-taped (figuratively, you hope) together.

Give people access to mentorship, in whatever form you can. If you can’t give them access to a team within your organization, give them dedicated time to contribute to relevant OSS projects. Send them to—just to name two really inclusive and helpful conferences/communities—Code4Lib (which has regional meetings, too) and/or Open Source Bridge.


So… that’s what I’ve got. What have I missed? What else should we be doing to help fix this gap?


* In truth, as excited as I am about starting my own business, I wouldn’t turn down an interview for a librarian-coder position local to Pittsburgh, but 1) it doesn’t feel like the wind is blowing that way, here, and 2) I’m in the midst of a whole slew of posts that may make me unemployable, anyway ;) (back to the text)

** To be fair, I did get to do some development on the clock, there. Unfortunately, because I wore so many hats, and other hats grew more quickly, it was not a large part of my work. Still, I got most of my PHP experience there, and I’m glad I had the opportunity. (back to the text)


do ALL things! arts, tech, and not having to choose just one as a young girl

This is a guest post by creatrix tiara | edited for geek feminism from original posts on tumblr and medium. Creatrix Tiara works with creative arts & media productions, community cultural development, and education to explore ideas around community, identity, liminality, belonging, and social justice. She has been on a computer before she could talk and is currently trying to find ways to bridge her artsy side and her techy side. Also, she’s currently available for hire.

Last year I listened to "The Way We Teach Computing Hurts Women", a podcast episode by WYNC’s Manoush Zomorodi, talking about different approaches to get girls interested in tech and computer science from childhood to university. There’s some history about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer period, as well as discussion of Hello Ruby and Goldiblox, which are aimed at getting very young girls interested in computer science and engineering. (What would have been great would be a mention of Lauren Ipsum, an Alice-in-Wonderland style book about computer science principles and lady pirates.)

This brought up a lot of feelings for me, mostly to do with being involved in tech as a young girl but fading out of it until very recently – and still feeling stuck not so much because of gender but because of another part of my identity: my passions.

So you know how some celebrity artists or athletes talk about "I could sing before I could talk!" or “I was dancing before I could walk!”? That was me, but with two things: before I could talk, I taught myself to read and how to use the computer. There is even a pretty adorable picture of me around age 2–4 mucking around with Harvard Graphics or the tutorials for Microsoft Works.

(Yes I had an odd idea of fun.

But you could make databases for skiers and spreadsheets for snail races!!)

When I was about 8 years old, the day my sister left Malaysia for the UK (for good), my parents answered a telemarketer call advertising computer classes. My mum asked me if I was interested — I remember being very sleepy, having been caught in traffic jams to and from the airport, and muttering a Yes without much thought.

The school had divided up their classes by year level — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, a level or so in between. After my pre-test they said I could skip the Beginner level and go straight to Intermediate. I was the youngest person there by a year.

This was before Windows 3.1 was much of a thing, and when we were still working with 5.25" floppies. We learnt newspaper layouts, basic animation, and coding in Pascal. Mostly we cheated on the exams and looked forward to playing the various Super Solvers games.

An 8-bit video game still image, showing an adventurer about to enter a clubhouse

those blasted elves

The Internet came to Malaysia circa 1995, and once I got online I never left. About the only time I took a significant break from the Internet was in 1997 when we had our first big national exam, the UPSR (which tells you which secondary school you go to), and my parents suggested that I go offline and quit computer classes for the year. I was allowed online just once – to write in the memorial book for Princess Diana.

Other then that ,  I was actively online all the time. I joined an online kids’ media site and reviewed books mailed to me from the US to Malaysia. I started webzines and wrote fiction & poetry. I hosted picnics on Geocities chat and virtual cities on AOL. When I really got into Aqua and Savage Garden, and then fandoms in general, my use of the Internet really took off. I was an amazingly prolific fanfic writer, made a ton of friends via online fandom, and even changed my life in very significant ways — such as making one of my closest friendships with someone who met me through a fansite I made for her TV channel, or choosing the Australian college I lived in based on having seen some Livejournal comics about exchange student life by one of its residents — where I met my matey: first boyfriend/significant relationship and now one of my closest friends.

In recent years my Internet presence has become more activist: first with Malaysia’s leading blog about alternative education, which could have gotten me elected into Parliament like my contemporary Malaysian edu-blogging peer, and now through talking about arts and intersectionality — gaining notoriety and (in)fame(y) by speaking up about racism in burlesque. (People still aren’t over it.)

The main reason I became so involved with the Internet is because it was safety and sanctuary in a hostile world. I was heavily bullied in school due to racial tension — most of the teachers were hostile instigators or at least uncaring. I didn’t really have a lot of space to express myself, because I was constantly told that my existence was wrong. I didn’t really learn a lot from the Malaysian education system: most of the State-sanctioned curriculum was already decades old. I was a desperately lonely child, seeking connection and community.

My friends were online. My creative expression was online. My education was online. The computer was a source of life for me, in many ways: even now I feel more spiritually connected to bits and bytes rather than trees and sea. While I sometimes had to deal with trolls and online bullies, I also had much stronger positive support online – many more people who had no problem with my existence and actually welcomed it.

However, despite my affinity to computers and the Internet and the fact that I am still online all the time, I didn’t actually follow through with any sort of tech degree or career path. Even now my family wonders why I didn’t pursue computer science; my dad calls me all the time demanding I make the next Facebook, because with my supposed computer smarts and his business acumen we could take on the world! I fit the childhood profile of many professional computer geeks: what was I doing being anything else?

There were a few factors in effect: they weren’t really connected to gender, in that nobody told me I shouldn’t be coding because that’s a boy’s thing, but they still played into societal expectations in some ways.

Some of it was logistical: I was often working on old semi-obsolete gear – I couldn’t even practice CSS or Javascript when they were still new because my browser wouldn’t support it. Asides from the classes I went to as a youngster, there wasn’t really any avenue for computer science education in my area in Malaysia – it wasn’t in the national curriculum, and I was often the de-facto school tech expert even in primary/elementary school. There’s only so much I could teach myself with my limited resources and age.

Mostly, though, nobody told me that I, or any other Malaysian student, could be both artsy and geeky; we were told to choose between Science or Arts. Science, in this case, meant taking Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and maybe Additional Mathematics in Forms 4 and 5 in Malaysian secondary schools. It was what every good student does because the whole point of Malaysian education is to study Medicine and be a doctor and make good money for your family. There wasn’t any "women can’t do Science" sentiment (and I went to all-girls schools that weren’t particularly feminist). The expectation was that everyone does Science, because that’s just what you do. Arts and Humanities, so my teachers and a lot of Malaysian society claimed, were for stupid people: people who failed their exams and so had to take Visual Art or Literature instead because those are for simpletons.

I caused quite a ruckus in Form 4 when I moved myself from being placed in one of the Science class to sitting in the row for the "last" class because I wanted to take Literature.

As you probably noticed, a lot of my online activity from childhood on involved writing. The same people who thought I would be a computer scientist or programmer also thought I would be a world-class writer, and at the time writing was my more pressing interest. I saw the Internet as a medium to post my writing and talk to other creative people, but didn’t really think about being in the bones of hardware or software or web development — it had been so many years since I knew any coding that I thought I’d missed the boat.

I didn’t want to be a doctor, or any kind of scientist, despite loving science museums as much as I loved libraries and bookstores and computers. This was mostly because the school’s take on Science was super boring (had I had a better set of teachers I may have been more inclined) but also because I felt like I had to choose: Science or Arts. The opportunities for Science were everywhere; the Arts, less so. I had my one chance, and I was a bit of a rebel — I had to take it.

Nobody ever said that I could have done all of the above. It never occurred to me to pull a Hermione Granger and take all the subjects — it was two distinct streams and I had to make a decision.

Ever since then, my personal and professional journeys have largely been in the arts and creative industries: media, performance art, writing, community cultural development. I wrote scripts for TV and interviewed Prime Ministers and stripped onstage while reciting adaptations of Suheir Hammad. I sang and danced and chomped the tops off roses and went viral for something I said at Slutwalk.

All of these were made possible via the Internet — whether by finding out about opportunities, getting a shot from the muse, posting my work, being known.

And yet I didn’t really see myself as the programming type.

Digital? Yes. Geeky? Sure.

Computer scientist? ehhh…

Yet there is so much I want to do with technology that goes beyond blog posts and social media and Facebook invites. I’ve started venturing into game design, after harbouring an interest for a long time, as a means of producing creative interactive experiences. I have ideas for performances that require a fair bit of geekery (such as this LED light costume). And there’s all these apps that would make my creative life so much easier but which don’t get made because there aren’t a lot of coders who are interested enough in making them.

I have noticed how deep the chasm is between the arts world and the tech world, even now, and how I’m somehow caught in the middle.

At a meeting hosted by a major Bay Area arts organization, one of the organizers proclaimed that we were "analogue mediums in a digital world!". A few days later, while volunteering at a games conference, a lot of attendees were puzzled at the presence of a performance artist in their midst. I’ve had people respond to my presentation of a social media campaign project at an international hackathon specifically designed to bring media-makers, journalists, and developers together with sarcastic tweets about how “if you’re going to be at a hackathon you should be creating something” (because a stack of blog posts, and animated video, and a hashtag doesn’t count as “creating”, clearly). I’ve also had to stop myself from getting riled up at writers’ events when people respond to my novel-in-progress, about a girl who gets superpowers from a Google-Glass-like device, with a long rant about how Google Glass is always evil and the downfall of society.

Around the time I wrote the first version of this article, I was being interviewed for a possible space at a tech bootcamp known for its supportive community and diversity work: when the interviewer asked why I wanted to learn coding, I told her about wanting to be entrepreneurial by producing creative work and artist tools, and I could hear her interest switch off, simply because I didn’t say "I want to be hired as a software engineer". (I was rejected twice.)

The combination of arts and tech does exist, though in smaller scale: this Ask Metafilter question brings up a lot of options, and for a little while I was going to an Arts+Tech Meetup in San Francisco, which is leading me to a lot of other opportunities. I also was nearly involved with Gray Area’s Creative Code bootcamp, which would have been perfect, but the timing didn’t work out.

The more I find, the more I wish this existed for me as a young girl — and the more I want to help young girls currently in this situation.

There are a lot of efforts towards encouraging young girls to get involved with tech, as demonstrated in the podcast. Girls Make Games did a presentation at Casual Connect and a big horde of us women immediately volunteered to help out! Search "tech for girls" and you find heaps of classes, workshops, camps — for Australian school girls or budding makers or young girls of color.

And yet so much of it is about getting girls involved in science or engineering. STEM. Even the first project talked about in the podcast had renamed their subject "Creative Problem-solving in Science and Engineering" — artsy little me would not have thought coding was ever an option for me.

There seems to be a little nudge in that direction: Google’s Made with Code has resources for code in the arts, and there is an Arty archetype in the Tech Girls Movement. But I would like to see more. I would like to encourage more. I want to bring more to the girls who may be where I was 15 years ago and thought that being a geek and being an artist or writer or musician was somehow a contradiction.

Now that I’ve graduated with an MFA and I’m looking for jobs on my OPT visa, I’m started to revisit the tech industry as the next stage in my career. It’s been tricky; some of the places I’ve interviewed at have asked me why someone with an arts and non-profit background like myself would want to be involved in tech. Sone get it though, when I tell them that putting a show together is much like working in a scrappy startup, trying to herd cats and do everything at once.

Maybe there is a space for an artsy creative person like me — especially a queer migrant minority gender-weird woman. (It’s been really bizarre to have my South Asian race not make me a minority, though I am not sure how many Bangladeshi-Malaysians are out there.)

Maybe there are ways to reach out to young girls, young boys, intimidated artists, baffled techies, about how these worlds do not need to be separate, how left brain/right brain is a myth, how you don’t have to sacrifice one interest for another.

Maybe I can look to my sister, who has always been inspiration for me even from a thousand miles away, who went from a lifetime of science to a rebirth as an illustrator, and yet so much of her work is already very scientific anyway. She has a kid, Zen, who – before her second birthday – declared to her mother that she wants to "do ALL things!", and is already proving so: her Instagram photos always have her trying out something new, from cooking to beekeeping to painting to building.

I want to help her do all things too.

So now, after not having coded anything since I mucked around with QBASIC as a 13-year-old, I’m learning how to code. I took the Web Developer blueprint with Skillcrush, which is geared towards women — I mostly joined because one of the staff members totally understood what it’s like to be the Resident Geek amongst her artist friends. Asides from the classes, there’s also a pretty vibrant community — including other artsy types. I’m also catching up on Codecademy; Javascript is a lot easier than I thought it would be! (Sort of: for loops confuse me a little.) I have also been looking at tech bootcamps, since I find that I learn better in person, though cost has been a major limiting factor.

When I listened to this podcast, I became so inspired: I was reminded of my dream to support young artsy & geeky girls, and this was more motivation to do so. I am almost tempted to get a computer science degree, but formal education and I barely get along. And I do want more options for exploring tech than having to do yet another degree.

But I have a vision, a vision for the creative Renaissance girls amongst us — if nothing else, then for my niece, and 4 year old me.

A little girl with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a drum on a strap around her neck as she plays the drum and smiles

marching to the beat of her own drum

Internet freedom and the EFF’s anti-harassment statement

Today we’re featuring two separate guest posts about online harassment: Dr. Alice Marwick’s post about her research proposal for studying why men harass women online — with a link to a site where you can vote for this proposal to be funded! — and this one, taking a closer look at the EFF‘s recent anti-harassment statement.

This is a guest post from Jem Yoshioka, a writer and illustrator from New Zealand. She grew up on the internet, connecting with people all around the world who like to draw and write. She uses the internet constantly, like many other people on the planet. However, a part of loving something means knowing when it’s a bit broken, and the internet is definitely that. Jem’s illustration work is available online and you can follow her on Twitter.

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

The Internet isn’t built for everyone

Internet freedom. It sounds pretty good on paper. An open and uncapturable internet with truly utopian beliefs and ideals about equality. In our rosiest narratives, the internet is one of the most incredible and liberating human inventions in recent history, and it’s certainly changing how we all live our lives. However, this utopian internet — a place where we can all live, work, socialise and act harmoniously together — has never and most likely will never exist. This is because the internet is largely built with the same patriarchal, cis, white male structures that “real world” societies are built with. It’s built from the same essential building blocks, and those blocks’ stresses, cracks and faults continue to harm the same people.

The internet is designed by and for straight, white, cis dudes. If you look at any of the startups currently vying for your valuable time and attention, you will see numbers of far, far more men than women and almost every single one of them will be white. The higher up you go, the whiter and more male it gets. If you follow the money that’s funding these ventures, you’ll notice a lot of them bear a striking resemblance to each other and also to a tall glass of milk.

White, hetero, cis male privilege is unaware of itself, but this is in part because it’s unaware of everyone else. And if these people are building our infrastructure, then there’s an awful lot of essential tools they’re missing because of their ignorance.

The places these people build are becoming increasingly more essential to our businesses, our work and our social lives, whether we like it or not. The dominance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook is strongly influencing we all use the internet and who can safely use the internet. When push comes to shove, the system protects the people who designed it for their own use; but everyone else is constantly placed at risk both in their online activities and in their physical space.

The thorny topic of harassment

Harassment was the hot-button word of 2014. It seemed like things reached some magical media tipping point and all of a sudden, women receiving rape and death threats online counted as proper “real world” news. But as many of us who are the targets (or potential targets) of this kind of harassment know, this behaviour isn’t something that’s just sprung up magically in the last year. It’s the festering muck that’s been lingering at the bottom of potentially every page, probably since the comment section was invented.

Being a woman on the internet is like playing with a ticking time bomb where you can’t see the timer. It could go off any second, or never, or in five years. It could go off because of something you said or someone else, or something completely unrelated to you. It could be because you like a hobby mostly boys like, or you’ve written that you’re fed up with inequality and sexism, or you’d just like a woman’s face to be on a bank note. It’s all stuff that it’s well within our rights as humans to discuss and have opinions about. But if you do so as a woman, you risk being hit with a harassment bomb.

When a harassment bomb detonates, it ruins lives. Private information is shared, companies boycotted, parents’ phone numbers called. Death threats are sent to conventions where victims plan to speak. Victims are blamed and accused of being “professional victims” all the while, the harassers push for their own financial and social profit.

It’s a constant struggle to write, share, and operate normally in the face of constant harassment. Not all of us are strong enough to stand against a tsunami of verbal and visual effluence day after day, and still manage time to build, construct, run, and manage a business. It’s exhausting even to witness from a safe distance, let alone live through. (Those that do manage, let me just say that I love you and everything you bring us, and your voice means the entire world to me. But I do wish you didn’t have to spend so much of your brilliance keeping your safety watertight.)

Since the targets of online harassment are most often marginalised people, this means we are losing voices. Targets are more likely to be women, of colour, trans, disabled, poor, or informally educated. Usually a mix of things because humans don’t tend to sit nicely in categorised boxes. Not everyone who faces this harassment can cut it, and they shouldn’t have to in order to do a simple thing like be active on the internet. We have no idea how many people have quit or won’t even start down this path because of harassment.

What’s wrong with the EFF’s picture

The EFF as an organisation stands up for a lot of the same things that I want to stand up for. Removal of restrictive DRM, power to people instead of governments, critical looks at spying laws and tackling issues of security. But when it comes to matters that involve harassment or the internet’s own structural biases, they are comparatively quiet. Since harassment silences and self-censors so many of our most marginalised voices, I would assume that an organisation like the EFF would jump onto the issue with all guns blazing. They have commented in the past in small doses, but they often take a relatively conservative approach in order to protect the “real” issue of actual proper free speech.

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

What we are seeing with online abuse can’t be mistaken for a disagreement of opinion. It’s not a couple of people having a swear-off or even just one person losing their cool at another. It’s constant, structured campaigns of active and malicious behaviour, much of it already illegal under existing law. I’m confused as to why it’d even be controversial to take a strong stand against it.

The EFF blames victims. The focus of their suggestions is on potential victims and users needing to learn self-protection, rather than addressing the very clear underlying systemic and cultural elements that allow harassment to flourish. They discount that many victims do already protect themselves — as much as online systems can possibly allow. Even with significant amounts of filtering, muting and blocking, their time and energy is being diverted from enjoying their time online to a constant battle for space and safety.

The EFF say that if only Twitter unlocked its API, third party creators could develop better tools to protect users. And yes, that’s a possibility. But for this possibility to be viable, someone needs to devote an awful lot of their time, skill and energy just to ensure a platform becomes marginally safer, which Twitter should be doing for its users in the first place.

Companies that profit from our data should be doing more to keep us as users safe. We should be able to have systems in place to protect us, built by full-time staff who are paid a living wage. We shouldn’t have to donate our own time to build such systems for ourselves, on top of whatever other work we need to do to keep ourselves and our families safe, fed, and sheltered. It’s your system that’s broken; you need to fix it. Pay someone to fix it. Put it in your business roadmaps. Hire people who know about this stuff. Stop building on top of the same structures that punish marginalised people.

It seems to be the EFF’s position that harassment needs to be condoned to some extent if we want free speech. If we get too tough on harassment, it’ll mostly end up getting used to punish free speech by governments instead of harassment at all. This idea that censorship trickles down is ridiculous, because marginalised people are already facing self-censorship of their work on a daily basis out of fear of harassment. It’s already happening, and we’re not being helped or protected except by each other.

The internet is white. The internet is male. Most of the internet speaks English. If you aren’t or don’t do these things, you are actively and continuously put under pressure to ensure conformity. If you continuously fail to conform, you are sent harassing messages, death and rape threats, and have your whole life twisted upside down for you and then blamed for it.

I love the internet. It’s my home. It’s where I’ve met most of my friends and how I keep connected with my family. It helps me to connect with new clients and keeps me informed of current events. It’s been a teacher, a friend, and my external memory component (effectively making me a cyborg). It improves my life in little and incalculable ways every day. However, the dark, hostile side can’t be ignored or tolerated. In order for the internet to be the best internet it can be, it needs to be better for everyone. We need to all be safe online, not just those of us who know how to protect ourselves or are lucky enough to never be targets. We need it to be a priority of the bigger fish, of our governments and of our advocacy organisations. We deserve to be safe.

Quick hit: “I’ll fight them as an engineer”

Thanks to a backchannel comment earlier, I had the thought that Peggy Seeger wrote a way better version of Lean In back in 1970, when Sheryl Sandberg was a baby. For those who didn’t spend their teen years listening to seventies folk music when all their peers were listening to rock and/or roll, here’s her song “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”, with a bonus animation by Ken Wong:


Oh, but now the times are harder and me Jimmy’s got the sack;
I went down to Vicker’s, they were glad to have me back.
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
But I’m a first-class engineer!

The boss he says “We pay you as a lady,
You only got the job because I can’t afford a man,
With you I keep the profits high as may be,
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands.”

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
Listened to my lover and I put him through his school
If I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

44 years later, Australian businessperson Evan Thornley — who was six years old when Seeger wrote “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” — presented a slide at a startup conference that said: “Women: like men, only cheaper.”

The same week, Ashe Dryden wrote:

In a world where a business’s bottom-line comes before anything else, industries profit from the unequal treatment of their employees. Marginalized people often have to go above and beyond the work being done by their more privileged coworkers to receive the same recognition. The problem is readily apparent for women of color, who make between 10 and 53% less than their white male counterparts. The situation is such that compensating people equally is seen as a radical act. In maintaining an undervalued workforce, businesses create even more profit.

(Emphasis author’s.)

Thanks to Maco for reminding me both that the song exists and of how timely it is almost half a century later. There’s some good news, though: Peggy Seeger is alive and well, and still performing and releasing music. She turns 80 years old next year and according to her Twitter bio, she’s openly bi and poly. (Footnote: happy Bisexual Awareness Week! Yes, we get a whole week now.)

The effect of linkspam on man-in-the-moon marigolds (29 March 2014)

Events, fundraisers and such:


  • Dinner plans for all: How conference organizers can make newcomers feel welcome | Becky Yoose at The Ada Initiative (March 24): “Take a small group of conference attendees (mix of new and veteran attendees), add a restaurant of their choosing, throw in some planning, and you get a conference social activity that provides a safer, informal environment that anyone can participate in.”
  • Heroines of Cinema: Why Don’t More Women Make Movies? | Matthew Hammett Knott interviews Marian Evans at Indiewire (March 24): a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why we don’t see more women on-screen and behind the camera in our favorite films and what we can do about it
  • ‘Making games is easy. Belonging is hard’: #1ReasonToBe at GDC | Alex Wawro at Gamasutra (March 20): “[Leigh] Alexander says some members of the industry still feel less wanted, less welcome, and less safe than others because of who they are or how they identify themselves.”
  • Wonder Woman writer and artist Phil Jiminez talls to Joseph Phillip Illidge at Comic Book  Resources, Part 1 (March 21) and Part 2 (March 23): “I’ve mentioned in other works that I believe Diana is the ultimate ‘queer’ character — meaning ‘queer’ in its broadest sense — defiantly anti-assimilationist, anti-establishment, boundary breaking. Looking back at the early works of the 1940s, sifting through all the weird stories and strange characters, you can find a pretty progressive character with some pretty thought provoking ideas about sex, sex roles, power, men and women, feminine power, loving submission, sublimating anger, dominance in sexual roles, role playing and the like.”
  • Warning: domestic violence Spyware’s role in domestic violence | Rachel Olding at The Age (March 22): “In a Victorian study last year, 97 per cent of domestic violence workers reported that perpetrators were using mobile technologies to monitor and harass women in domestic situations.” [The study in question seems to be Delanie Woodlock (2013), Technology-facilitated Stalking: Findings and Recommendations from the SmartSafe Project, MSM can’t start linking/citing their sources soon enough for this spammer!]
  • Impostoritis: a lifelong, but treatable, condition | Maria Klawe at Slate (March 24)  “I’ve been the first woman to hold my position—head of computer science and dean of science at the University of British Columbia, dean of engineering at Princeton, and now president of Harvey Mudd College. As my career progressed, so did the intensity of my feelings of failure.”
  • The Aquanaut | Megan Garber at The Atlantic (March 13): “The first thing you should know about Sylvia Earle is that she has a LEGO figurine modeled after her. One that has little yellow flippers instead of little yellow feet. “
  • Condolences, You’re Hired! | Bryce Covert at Slate (March 25): “Evidence suggests that women are more likely to get promoted into leadership during particularly dicey times; then, when fortunes go south, the men who helped them get there scatter and the women are left holding the bag. This phenomenon is… known as the glass cliff
  • Mistakes we’ve made | Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock at Hacker School Blog (March 25): Bergson-Shilcock describes ways Hacker School inadvertently deterred or misjudged female candidates and what they’re doing to improve.
  • A few comments on Brendan Eich’s hiring as Mozilla CEO, and his political donations to anti-marriage equality campaigns and candidates:
    • Against Tolerance (March 24) and I know it’s not raining (March 28), both by Tim Chevalier at Dreamwidth: “Apologizing for past wrongs doesn’t undo the past, but it does help rebuild trust and provide assurance that further abuse (or at least not the same kind!) won’t occur in the future. We’ve seen none of that — only tone policing and attempts at creating diversions. The message I take away from reading Brendan’s blog posts is ‘I’ll still try to destroy your family, but I won’t be rude to you to your face. Keep writing code for me!'”
    • Civil rights and CEOs | Alex Bromfield at Medium (March 25): “Eich asks people to put aside this issue because it is unrelated to the work that Mozilla does, but it is related, especially when the chief of HR reports to him.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Why I Keep Coming Back to Mentor with TechWomen

This is a cross-post, written by Larissa Shapiro, from the TechWomen blog. Larissa Shapiro is the Head of Contributor Development at Mozilla.

TechWomen is an initiative of the US Department of State, administered by the Institute of International Education. TechWomen brings professional women in STEM fields from the Middle East and Africa to the SF Bay Area for month-long mentorships with women in industry and academia here. The “Emerging Leaders” are paired with a “professional” mentor (I have been honored to hold this role three times for the program) – who has the Emerging Leader with her at her workplace for a month, and a “cultural” mentor who shares the local culture and her own community and family life. The Emerging Leaders and their mentors also have the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC together in a delegation to the State Department and to other meetings with political and social movers and shakers in the capitol. Some mentors are also able to travel to the Middle East and Africa on delegations, as I was privileged to do in 2011 to Morocco. If any readers of Geek Feminism are interested in more information about the project, please visit the TechWomen page or reach out to me directly

I came across TechWomen by chance. A former colleague forwarded me a note from a local Women in Tech newsletter calling for mentors for a new State-Department-sponsored mentoring program. I thought… hmm…. am I ready for that? I’d gotten tremendous benefit from the mentors in my own life (I still do). I wanted to “give back” but felt terribly… green. I’d been in tech for about 15 years at the time, yet I felt unsure. I took a deep breath, filled in the application and sent it off, thinking there was no way I’d be accepted! In retrospect, I had Impostor Syndrome about becoming a mentor. What I did not realize then was how much mentoring would change my life, and change what I do with my life.

I was honored to be chosen for the first mentor cohort of TechWomen. I remember the first mentor meeting, and the incredible caliber of the women I met – I knew right away that this community of mentors would be a critical part of my TechWomen experience. Through mentoring, I have met and become friends with a network of amazing technical professional women with similar goals; all of us are dedicated to supporting each other and women in STEM around the world. Lifelong friendships have been built.

When my Emerging Leader arrived, I was impressed with her skills, talent, and intellect right away. It was not shocking – the women selected for this program are less than one out of ten of those applying. In 2013, 2000 women applied and 78 were selected. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to know every Emerging Leader well, and that we would never get enough time together.

Sanae and I dove into her mentorship, in which she studied project management techniques. We spent a lot of time at the French bakery down the road over coffee, learning how much we had in common. As much as I know I passed on wisdom to her about specific technical matters, she gave me her deep insights into my work relationships, and our friendship has continued. One of the biggest realizations for me in my first year as a mentor was that the technical mentorship is a container for work, but it is filled with deep international perspective, caring relationships, growth, and connection. The official “work” of the mentoring project turns out to not be the real “work” at all – not that it is not important.

As part of the program I was able to travel to both Washington, DC and to Morocco. Washington, DC was a wonderful trip – sharing both a city and a national heritage I love with new friends – that first year we happened to be in DC over the 4th of July and got to watch the fireworks from the top of the State Department. I felt like the luckiest American of all. Even more deeply meaningful for me was joining the TechWomen mentor delegation to Morocco – we travelled to Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat. One day we visited a house that provides care for girls who move to the city to attend secondary school – which they cannot do in their villages. The girls spoke mainly Berber, Arabic and French, but a few also spoke English and we talked with some of them. One told me of her determination to become a doctor and return to her village to improve healthcare for women and girls. At twelve years old, she spoke with an adult understanding of the world. I see the same fire in many girls who want to go into STEM – to change their circumstance – to change the world. She inspired me.

TechWomen moved into its second year, and expanded into more countries. I was thrilled to apply again – and my company wanted me to as well, having seen what an outstanding networking opportunity it was. I was matched with a brilliant emerging leader – an IT instructor from Tunisia. She chose a technical research project, studying the penetration of the IPv6 address protocol in Tunisia. She was also engaged in politics in her home country following its “Arab Spring” and taught me so much, giving me ever more respect for the work that goes into fighting for and building democracy.

I am now in my third year with TechWomen. I changed jobs during this year, and I was so determined to mentor again that I made my participation a criterion of my hire. I’m loving every minute with my newest Emerging Leader, Imen Rahal, who is very excited about the mission and projects of my present employer, Mozilla. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She has jumped in with both feet and is exceeding my expectations, taking on our modified Agile development process in the FirefoxOS project. I am very lucky that Imen’s Cultural Mentor is my friend (and Mentoring Process Architect) Katy Dickinson, and we have made cultural excursions together already, most recently to the redwoods near my Santa Cruz home.

Why do I mentor? Why wouldn’t I? For me, mentoring has become an emotional, networking, and perspective-building bank account where what I get back in “interest” is much more than what I put in. These women inspire me, bring my “game up” and become deeply cherished friends. If you have the chance to Mentor… I cannot recommend it enough.

Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.

First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.

Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:

The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.

Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:

Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?

Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.

However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.

Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.

I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.

I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.

You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.

Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:

These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.

It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.

I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.

I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.

However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style

Wednesday Geek Woman: cross-post your Ada Lovelace Day 2013 post

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

This is a submissions thread for Wednesday Geek Woman series of profiles. This time you have two submission options:

  1. submit your Ada Lovelace Day profile for cross-posting
  2. submit in comments here as usual

Option 1a: submit your Ada Lovelace Day profile for cross-posting.

To do this, simply leave the URL of your ALD post in comments. In addition, you can optionally include:

  1. optionally, a one sentence biography about yourself, with any links you want.
  2. optionally, a note that you are willing to release your profile under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported


  • the profile must be written by you
  • the profile will still be checked against our standard criteria before posting (see below)

Option 1b: submit your Ada Lovelace Day profile for a round-up

This mostly applies to anyone who wrote about a woman we’ve already featured. We won’t cross-post your posts, but we’d love to stick them in a roundup.

Option 2: submit in comments here.

Note: this option is not limited to profiles of women in STEM.

Submit your profile of a geek woman in (hidden) comments here and selected ones will be posted (perhaps lightly edited). Here’s what to include:

  1. Optional: a quick one sentence bio paragraph about yourself, with any links you want. For example: Mary is a humble geek blogger and you can find her at <a href=”http://geekfeminism.org/”>geekfeminism.org</a&gt;Notes:
    • if this bio line is missing, you will be assumed to want to be anonymous. This applies even if you put a name and URL in the comment field.
    • don’t feel pressured into revealing things about yourself you don’t want to. A pseudonymous, mysterious, vague or simple bio is fine.
  2. Compulsory: two or more parapraphs describing your geek woman, ideally including why you admire her in particular.
  3. Optional: links to her biography, her Wikipedia page, and so on.
  4. Optional: agreement that your post can be used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (posts that have this can be used in the Geek Feminism wiki).

See previous posts for examples.

Here’s a form you could copy and paste into comments:

My bio (one sentence only, optional):

Name or pseudonym of the geek woman I am submitting:

A few words summarising the woman’s geek accomplishments (for example “AI researcher” or “discoverer of supernova” or “engine mechanic”):

My post about this woman (two or more paragraphs):

Links to this woman elsewhere (optional):

[Please delete this line if you don’t agree!] I agree to licence my post under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Criteria. Continue reading

One week until Ada Lovelace Day 2013!

Ada Lovelace Day is a week from today: Tuesday October 15.

Ada Lovelace Day is a profile-raising day for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Write or record something about a woman in STEM on October 15:

Ada Lovelace Day in a nutshell

Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.

Add your story!

On October 15th, write a blog post about your STEM heroine and add it to our collection: Just follow these simple steps:

  • Write about a woman in science, technology, engineering or maths whose achievements you admire.
  • Publish your story online.
  • Visit our directory of stories and either join up or log in.
  • Add your story to our collection.
  • Tell your friends!

Yes, it really is that simple!

List sources of inspiration here, or previous year’s ALD posts that you’ve really enjoyed.

NB: for clarity Ada Lovelace Day is independent of, and pre-dates, the Ada Initiative, the non-profit I work for that specifically focuses on women in open technology and culture. Both organisations are named in honour of Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace.